November 13, 2013

Partnering With Institutions, Cornell Will Join BioXFEL Consortium

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Cornell will join seven other universities and institutes in forming a $25-million science and technology center that will focus on structural biology and be funded by the National Science Foundation, according to a University press release.

The national consortium — which has been named the BioXFEL center — will be headquartered at the University at Buffalo. It will concentrate on utilizing X-ray free-electron lasers to analyze biomolecules with an emphasis on drug development, according to the Associated Press.

The consortium competed with more than 260 groups and participated in a “rigorous” peer review process to receive the grant, according to Prof. Lois Pollack, applied and engineering physics.

Pollack said she became involved with the BioXFEL center about two years ago. She said she was drawn to the center because of its goal of letting researchers collaborate to solve different biological problems.

“Together, we can do much more than we can alone. That’s the vision of this center,” Pollack said. “You have people with different expertise, but we all focus on common problems.”

BioXFEL will take advantage of each institution’s facilities and findings to “advance science and discovery” with “an eye towards very important medical applications,” according to Pollack.

“By leveraging off of tools we build at Cornell, we can help others in the center to identify a new drug or understand a new structure,” Pollack said.

According to Pollack, a large part of the NSF grant will fund hiring undergraduate and post-doctoral students to assist with research as part of BioXFEL’s commitment to education, training and outreach. George Calvey grad, who is aiding Pollack with her research, said he is looking forward to the opportunities the new endeavor will bring.

“I think it’s a great start for this brand new field. To start out with this big collaboration is definitely awesome — it’s really exciting. We’re bringing together people with a lot of different skill sets and rather than competing, we will be working together,” Calvey said.

Collaborating with BioXFEL is mutually beneficial for individual scientists’ research and the field in general, according to Pollack, who specializes in designing biological tools to advance her molecular biology research. She said 10 years ago, she became interested in how biological molecules fold into their active structure, and her contributions to research in this field have assisted other scientists with their own research.

“Working in collaboration with many other people, we developed a brand new tool that would let us observe the molecules as they fold,” Pollack said.

According to Pollack, she and other Cornell scientists can build this tool — a small silicon chip — at the Cornell Nanofabrication Facility, flow proteins through it and then use the on-campus X-ray source at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source to measure the structure of the folding proteins.

Pollack said that while she feels Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source continues to be an useful facility, she will benefit from the new BioXFEL resources, which have lead to a new way of studying biological molecules.

“X-ray sources keep getting better and better, brighter and brighter,” Pollack said. “More things become possible.”

According to Pollack, instead of immobilizing or crystallizing a sample in order to study it, scientists can use new X-ray sources to create a “frozen snapshot” of the sample by using a powerful, super-fast X-ray pulse.

“This new source has so many X-rays that when you measure your sample, you obliterate it. … It completely vaporizes your sample,” Pollack said.

Currently, only three X-ray Free Electron Laser machines exist, and the Linac Coherent Light Source at Stanford is the only one in the U.S., Pollack said. Along with Cornell, the University at Buffalo, Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute of Buffalo, Arizona State University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Rice University, the University of California’s San Francisco and Davis campuses and Stanford University make up the BioXFEL center, according to the Associated Press.